Sweet Dreams & Bloody Blades 

This month's East Bay book news.

Dawn of a new rage: With a film version of her Oakland-based best-seller The Mistress of Spices forthcoming from the team that produced Bend It Like Beckham, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee set her new novel Queen of Dreams (Doubleday, $21.95) in Berkeley, where she lived as a Cal student twenty years ago and "if I could, I'd come back and live here in a heartbeat." In the novel, American-born Rakhi struggles to understand her Indian-born mother's career as a clairvoyant who dreams other people's futures.

"There are many dream-tellers in India as well as in the Indian-American community, and scores of books on the subject," Banerjee says. "The tellers have special powers of insight -- they are gifted rather than merely trained. It is considered sacred." Rakhi is an artist who co-owns a cafe: "two very Berkeley things," the author says.

In this fictional version of Berkeley (warning: spoiler alert), right after the WTC attacks, four rednecks smash up Rakhi's Indian cafe, shouting, "We're patriots. We've been watching you and your terrorist pals. ... Looked in a mirror lately? You ain't no American! It's fuckers like you who planned this attack on the innocent people of this country. Time someone taught you faggots a lesson." Blood spills before the intruders escape in an American-flag-festooned car.

Earlier that day, a nearby Mexican restaurant's proprietor had urged Rakhi to put a God Bless America banner in her window. "They're selling them on the corner of University and Shattuck," Mr. Soto says breathlessly. "You should buy one before they run out." Rakhi refuses to be "pressured into putting up a sign. ... Is this California, year 2001," she muses, "or is this Nazi Germany?"

For Banerjee, this scene evoked the time and place when "you draped your home and business with the swastika flag to show your solidarity with the Nazis so that you wouldn't become a target. ... When we hate those whom we have declared to be the 'other,' when we are prepared to destroy them without just cause, when we call such acts patriotic, then we are Nazis. Aren't we?"

Speaking of separation: Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin attracted a beyond-capacity crowd for a lecture in UC Berkeley's Dwinelle Hall about her new book In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror (Regnery, $27.95). Hundreds were turned away after the auditorium filled up. Protesters thronged the hall, bearing signs with slogans such as "Profile This" (with an arrow pointing to the signbearer's crotch) and chanting such rhymes as "Malkin, you liar, we'll set your ass on fire!" Inside the auditorium, Malkin described newly released intelligence documents indicating that US-based Japanese agents were coordinating an attack on the Pacific coast during WWII -- and she argued that internment camps were justified then and might be again in our era. After a standing ovation, the book-signing portion of the event was cancelled for security reasons.

Walker this way: Little did Evelyn C. White realize, upon deciding to write a biography of fellow Oaklander Alice Walker, that it would turn into a ten-year adventure whose countless high points included two trips to Cuba and a three-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey.

The manuscript was due in 1999, "but the ancestors had other plans," White says. "I just kept working and working. ... The calendar pages would whizz by, like in old movies." Having given her biographer virtually unlimited access to her life, Walker consoled White through periodic fear-of-failure attacks: "She'd shower me with all her wisdom and experience as an artist and say, 'It will take as long as it takes.' I had to get my serenity vibe going in a serious way. ... I hate being tardy." Now Alice Walker -- A Life (Norton, $29.95) is being released this month, just as a Broadway-bound musical production of Walker's The Color Purple premieres: "The ancestors knew from the start."

The starkest point of the journey came at an international women's health conference in Brazil where White hoped to screen a documentary based on Walker's book about female genital mutilation, Warrior Marks, and to interview African attendees about their experiences with FGM.

"Upon my arrival, it became clear that a lot of the African sisters had 'issues' with Alice. ... As they put it, she was a 'cultural imperialist' who'd 'stepped out of her place' and 'made them look bad'" with her book and her activism. Openly snubbed, White "couldn't help thinking that Africans had been complicit in helping to usher us -- African Americans -- into slavery." When she was finally permitted to show the film late one night, "about half of the assembled women -- all African -- walked out of the room, never to return. It took everything I had not to burst into tears." Among the handful of remaining viewers was a young Ugandan AIDS patient "who believed she had contracted the virus from the bloody knife used when she was forced by her family to undergo FGM. She went on to praise Alice for her courage."

White will discuss and sign the book and screen rare Walker footage at the Berkeley Public Library on October 1.

Deep dish: San Francisco's Financial District stands atop landfill, but most of it was once saltwater. Three years ago this month, Oakland archaeologist Alan Pastron unearthed a ship at what is now Clay and Battery streets: Having brought goldhunters west around the Horn and stayed put as a floating warehouse, the packet General Harrison was ravaged and sunk in a massive 1851 inferno. When modern buildings on the site were demolished in 2001, Pastron negotiated permission to dig into the wet sand underneath and explore the ship. On his team was maritime archaeologist James P. Delgado, who recounts this along with other underwater adventures -- from a Civil War submarine to Kublai Khan's lost fleet -- in Adventures of a Sea Hunter (Douglas & McIntyre, $25).

Around General Harrison's charred hull, as crowds watched from the street above, the team found a sealed crate of Rhine wine; bottles of Madeira, brandy, sherry, and Champagne; and a sticky substance that "might be samples of paté." Perhaps oddest of all -- having been submerged for 150 years -- was "a perfectly preserved peanut, still in its shell."

In the ruins of that same waterfront fire, Delgado found long-buried crocks of butter, bags of coffee, crates of army rifles, and jars of jam, the cherries inside still bright red. Watch for Delgado at San Francisco's Maritime Museum on November 8.

Whip it out: Writers needing to pad too-thin manuscripts should introduce characters who stutter. "It doubles the girth of their dialogue," advises Oakland's Chris Baty in No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (Chronicle, $14.95). In 1999, Baty staged the first-ever National Novel Writing Month: a marathon in which 21 friends spewed out characters, backstory, and denouement, bent on creating 21 debut novels.

"The idea of starting the month with nada and ending it with a book ... no matter how bad that book might be," was irresistible, as was the possibility that some of their books might actually become best-sellers. "As a music nerd," reasons Baty, who will be at Diesel on September 29, "I knew it could happen."

Organized by week, No Plot? is packed with tips and exercises that defy their funny premise and provide actual fuel for any aspiring writer. (In the Person and Thing game, you visualize a person, shut your eyes, point blindly to a random spot in the newspaper, open your eyes, and imagine a connection between the person and whatever article or ad on which your finger rests. Therein lies a plot point.)

Sign-ups begin October 1 for this year's marathon, which is now an international contest -- see NaNoWriMo.org for details. It's all about quantity, Baty says, not quality: size matters.

Fleshtone: A strange silent woman wearing a white gown and gloves used to ply the aisles of an Oakland variety store, circa 1965. African American, she wore a blonde wig, her face lightened with flour-and-water paste. Rumors circulated that her husband had run off with a white woman, writes Skyline grad Nerdy Jennifer in her chapbook Frankie: An African-American Tragedy (Regent, $5). It's an inspirational examination of identity, self-esteem, and survival by an author who was the first-ever TWA attendant to wear her hair in cornrows, establishing a precedent for African-American flight attendants worldwide. "Half the blacks I know alter their natural appearance ... yet they dared to shake their heads at Frankie in disgust," Jennifer muses.

Writers on the purple stage: East Bayites Maxine Hong Kingston, Khaled Hosseini, Barry Gifford, Amy Tan, and April Sinclair are among dozens of authors slated to arouse and/or carouse October 9-17 at Litquake 2004, the annual festival where local writers and legions of readers raise hell -- and other relevant issues -- at various San Francisco venues. For times and places, check Litquake.org


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